The Rationalization Hypothesis: Is a Vision of Jesus Necessary for the Rise of the Resurrection Belief?

[Below is a guest article written by Kris Komarnitsky, author of Doubting Jesus’  Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?. I have reviewed Kris’ book previously on this blog (see here), and so I am glad that he asked me to also post his article here.]

Thanks for the intro Matt. Although the bereavement vision hypothesis is widely regarded as a plausible naturalistic explanation for the rise of the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead, I have never quite found this hypothesis completely convincing. My article below draws on social psychology to propose what I believe is a better, or at least significantly complementary, explanation for the rise of the resurrection belief, followed by a critique of the bereavement vision hypothesis. To be up front, I attempted to publish this article in a peer review journal, but the reviewer found it too speculative and the use of biblical texts and ancient Jewish literature too secondary for their purview. I respect the judgment of this journal even though I found their criteria overly restrictive, and I was encouraged by the lack of technical objections. The origin of the resurrection belief is a captivating historical puzzle and the lack of a satisfying answer motivated my inquiry into this topic. Ironically, the lack of a satisfying answer for the rise of the resurrection belief subjected me to the same basic cognitive process that I will suggest led to the resurrection belief. This cognitive process affects all of us, more than I think we are usually aware of. I hope readers find my article useful. – Kris Komarnitsky (KomarKris@gmail.com)

The article below is also available as a pdf.

Introduction

The conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead is found in the earliest evidence of Christian origins and appears to have come about almost immediately after Jesus’ death.[1] How does one account for the rise of this extraordinary belief if the later Gospel accounts of a discovered empty tomb and corporeal post-mortem appearances of Jesus are legends, as many scholars believe is the case?

One popular answer to this question is that the resurrection belief came about as an inference from an unconsciously generated and cognitive dissonance reducing bereavement vision of Jesus, described by one proponent of the vision hypothesis as “an auditory and visual experience of Jesus alive and in heavenly glory.”[2] The vision hypothesis is supported by the fact that the Gospels often connect seeing Jesus with causing belief in Jesus’ resurrection, so a historically causal connection between the two seems natural. However, the earliest statements of Jesus’ appearances (1 Cor. 15.5-7) actually do not state any causal connection between the appearances of Jesus and belief in Jesus’ resurrection; they only state that Jesus appeared. Additionally, the Gospel appearance traditions are trying to bolster belief in Jesus’ resurrection many years or decades after Jesus’ death, so they may simply be part of a legendary trajectory that is trying to ground the initial resurrection belief in hard evidence for apologetic purposes, just like the discovered empty tomb tradition does. If so, then it is possible that the resurrection belief came first, and then the visions of Jesus followed. Allowing for this possibility, this article attempts to improve on an already developed but I believe undervalued explanation for the rise of the resurrection belief that draws on the extraordinary human phenomenon of cognitive-dissonance-induced rationalization.

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Posted in Guest Blogs, Resurrection | 16 Comments

Time for an Update

38665081_10107735075768052_8311195960428462080_nI’ve been away from the blog for a couple months, so I’ve decided to give an update on what I’m doing. As previously noted, I am currently on a medical leave of absence from school. Recently I have been heavily focused on improving my health, while thinking about the direction I want to take my career. I’m not going to lie, over the years managing this blog has often tired me out. There is a lot of antagonism within the field of Biblical Studies. It provides an interesting contrast with the field of Classical Studies, where there tends to be less controversy and intensity between different viewpoints. I feel that focusing too much on the debating and critiquing side of scholarship has sometimes sapped my creative energy.

I am still unequivocally opposed to the way organized religion has penetrated academia. I have no problem with Christian scholars working on the subject of ancient history, but I don’t think there should be accredited academic institutions (with doctrinal statements) designed to favor one particular religion (or atheism, for that matter). It fundamentally differs from what I view as the proper role of a university, and I hope to be active in addressing that throughout my career.

But, there is also a bigger world out there, and I want to feel free to explore it. There is so much acrimony (on both sides) in online discourse about the historical Jesus, the Bible, etc. I realize that this is due to the wider controversy and polarization of thought that surrounds these matters, but it can also be very tiring. When I started out studying Classics, I felt like I was having a lot more fun and passion for what I was doing. But all the antagonism in Biblical Studies has had the unfortunate effect of making my scholarship feel like a chore. I want to fix that, because it’s not how I want my career to feel throughout the coming decades.

Since I am doing a lot of internal reflection right now, I want to let my readers know that my blog posts will probably be sporadic over the next several months. I don’t want to feel like I am obligated to write here. I should do so out of passion and interest. For this reason, if you are a patron on my Patreon account, feel free to unsubscribe, since this blog will be less active. I’m going to keep the account open, should I ever decide to start posting more again, and also for people who simply want to be patrons of my academic work outside the blog.

In terms of upcoming material, I have a guest article that I will be posting soon, written by Kris Komarnitsky (author of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?). Other than that, we’ll just see how I’m doing.

I hope that this announcement doesn’t come as a disappointment to certain readers. I have to take care of myself and make sure that I am happy with my work. As such, I’ll be utilizing my leave of absence to deeply consider the future direction I want to take in academia. Hopefully what I’ve written makes sense, and apologies if it seemed like a long confessional (haha).

Take care,

Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Announcements | 12 Comments

Contributing a Chapter to a New John Loftus Volume on Miracles

August has been a rough month, so I’m sorry that I haven’t been more active on the blog. But, I do have an announcement to make about a chapter that I will be contributing to a new volume, edited by John Loftus, on the subject of apologetics and miracles.

My chapter will be a critical review of Christian scholar Craig Keener’s Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. I started reviewing Keener’s volumes back in December of 2015, but for various reasons I’ve been delayed in continuing my series of essays on the subject. Loftus’ new volume, therefore, provides a great opportunity for me to wrap up my critique.

I’m going to be working with Ed Babinski on the review, and right now it’s looking like we will each write one chapter in a two-part section. Babinski helped me during my earlier review, by critiquing Keener’s analysis of faith healer Johann Blumhardt, so I’m happy to be working with him again. Evan Fales will also be writing a chapter for the volume, and while I believe it won’t be focused on Keener, Fales and I have corresponded a lot over the years about the topic of probability and miracles.

This should be a nice opportunity, so I’m very grateful that Loftus invited me to contribute a chapter!

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Announcements | 5 Comments

Did the Author of Matthew Intend to Imply that the Disciple Matthew Was the Brother of James son of Alphaeus?

In doing research on the Gospel of Matthew the other day, I noticed a peculiarity in the Matthew’s redaction of the Gospel of Mark. The process started when I was looking into the name change between “Levi” son of Alphaeus (Mk. 2:13-17) and “Matthew” (Mt. 9:9-13) between the two gospels. The question I was searching for was: “What would motivate the author of Matthew to identify the role of Levi with the disciple Matthew?”

“Matthew” is first mentioned in Mark among the list of twelve disciples in 3:16-19. There, no indication is given that this individual is the same “Levi” mentioned in Mk. 2:13-17. This is a curious omission, since the author of Mark specifies elsewhere when the same individual was known by two names. In the same list of disciples, he clarifies that “Simon” was also known as “Peter” at 3:16 (which is a point also reinforced at 14:37). The former of these identifications help to bridge the reader between the Simon who first appears in 1:16, and the character Peter who first appears solely by that name in Mk. 5:37. I call this a bridge, because the names “Simon” and “Peter” switch, right after the two figures are connected in the list of the twelve at 3:16-19.

But no such identification is provided in Mark to connect “Levi” with “Matthew.” So where did the Gospel of Matthew get the idea to connect the two? To answer this, I think there are a few major clues:

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Authorial Third Person Narration–in Thucydides, Josephus, Xenophon, and Caesar–Versus the Gospel of Matthew

One of the issues that pops up frequently, when discussing the authorial anonymity of the Gospel of Matthew, is how a number of Classical authors refer to themselves in the third person, when narrating historical events in which they themselves had taken part. This point is raised, due to the fact that the disciple Matthew is mentioned in the gospel attributed to him (Mt. 9:9-13), but is only described in the third person, rather than identifying himself in the first person as the author of the text.

It is claimed that this omission should not count against the traditional authorial attribution of Matthew, since authors like Thucydides, Josephus, Xenophon, and Julius Caesar likewise describe themselves in the third person within their own narratives, without switching to the first person when they appear. Some additional nuance needs to be incorporated to address this point, however, since the authorial use of the third person in these Classical authors differs in a number of ways from how the disciple Matthew plays a role in the Gospel of Matthew.

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Posted in Classics, Exegesis, History, Literary Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Readers’ Mailbag: Should Legendary Development Have Occurred More Rapidly for Alexander the Great than Jesus?

Recently in response to my blog essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?: The Spectrum of Ancient Βίοι”–in which I discuss how the NT Gospels resemble the more novelistic and fabulous biographies from antiquity, such as the Alexander Romance (in contrast to more historiographical and mundane ancient biographies, such as those of Plutarch, for example)–a reader asked this question:


Thanks for this article, it’s a great read and most enjoyable. Just one thing, I am not entirely persuaded about the growth of popular biographies, at least in terms of comparing their rapid emergence with the gospels. Someone, like Alexander for example, was a widely known character, who acted out it his life on a grand stage. The rapid embellishments on such a well know character are understandable. But Jesus life was quite different, he spent his life in a back water, an unknown figure to the majority of people, and even afterwards, the same was true for a very long time. So, I think the arguments against fabulisation and extraordinary embellishments (in the gospels) have a point, because of the time scale involved. This is not to suggest that there aren’t any, and as time went on, (as the none canonical gospels show), there was a definite movement in this direction; but I am not sure that it is a good argument for implying that the gospels must be full of the fanciful .

I’d be interested to hear your response.


To provide some further context, I have compared the pace of legendary development between Alexander the Great and Jesus in this previous essay, as well as this one. Here is my response to the reader’s question:

I am actually going to turn your intuition on its head. Let’s stop and think about what it would take to turn Alexander into a fabulated hero. The historical Alexander had already accomplished many extraordinary deeds during his lifetime. He had expanded the small countries of Macedonia and Greece into conquering most of the known world. He had traveled as far as India and deep into Central Asia. He had vanquished great kings and generals. He had founded many cities and left behind a great empire (even if it fractured). And he had done all of this by his early-30’s.

What sort of embellishments needed to be fabricated about Alexander, in order to make his story more glorious? Really, not too many. Sure, you could add stuff about him meeting legendary Amazon warriors (like Achilles) during his military expeditions. You could spread rumors about his mother being impregnated by a god (like Hercules). And you could speak of journeys to the end of the world (like Odysseus). But when it’s all said and done, the real Alexander the Great was already a legend in his own right.

Now let’s turn to Jesus. If you wanted to spread stories about Jesus being the Messiah, what kind of Messiah would he make if he was nothing but an obscure, itinerant peasant, who made little impact on the known world during his lifetime? Jesus was never recognized by the vast majority of his contemporary Judeans as their king. He never overthrew the yoke of Roman oppression. He never ushered in any sort of cosmic judgement or transformation while he was alive. Who wants to hear about a Messiah who was little more than a vagabond wandering around giving sermons?

So, if you want to dress Jesus up as a Messiah, you actually have far more work to do. You would need to spread stories about him ascending to heaven (like Elijah). Stories about him walking on water (even more remarkable than Moses merely parting water). Stories about him multiplying even more bread than Elisha had. Stories about him raising the dead and performing nature miracles (like both Elijah and Elisha). And, if Jesus had not ushered in cosmic judgement during his lifetime, then you would need to speak of celestial visions foretelling how he would do so in the future (such as what John of Patmos witnessed).

Finally, since Jesus had suffered an embarrassing execution on the cross, you would need to revise that blemish on his track record, by having him experience an extraordinary reversal of fate. Perhaps, say, by rising from the dead afterward…

So, I actually think that someone like Jesus would have far more fabulation occur in his popular biography. Note, both Alexander and Jesus had their legends take shape around mimetic models. Alexander was modeled on figures such as Hercules, Achilles, and Odysseus. Jesus was modeled on figures such as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. But Jesus’ story needed far more miracles and wonder-working in it, in order to raise him from an obscure peasant to someone far more remarkable. Alexander didn’t need that. He already was remarkable. It didn’t take as much myth-making to impress people with Alexander’s story. But who wants a King of the Jews and Messiah that does nothing but wander around giving sermons and speaking in parables? You need to add miracles, thunder, and furry to the story, in order to get people to follow Jesus.

A final note is that fabulation also did seem to take place more slowly with Alexander than Jesus. Our earliest versions of the Alexander Romance date to centuries after his death. Scholars such as Richard Stoneman think that they may be based on an earlier archetype, dating to only a couple generations after Alexander’s lifetime, but we can’t be sure. In contrast, we know that none of the Gospels could have been written any later than a century after Jesus’ death.

And I think there are reasons why the Gospels needed to be written sooner. To get Christianity off the ground, you needed to have extraordinary tales about Jesus circulated quite early. Otherwise both Jesus and Christianity would have faded into obscurity. Alexander, in contrast, would have remained quite famous for centuries, with no help from the Alexander Romance being needed to preserve his memory and legend. So, as I said at the beginning, counter-intuition may be the answer to your question.

I think answering this question shaped into a nice post on its own, and so I’ve posted it on the main page of this blog.

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Classics, Historical Jesus, History, Mailbag, Miracles | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

David Bryan on N.T. Wright and the Argument from “Anachronistic Anastasis” by Eric Bess

[Below is a guest blog by my friend Eric Bess, which deals appropriately with a topic pertaining to Easter and how to interpret the nature of the resurrection event.]

General Problems of Reasoning and Rhetoric

One of the most common arguments in the popular brand of resurrection apologetics is the idea that the resurrection of Jesus was some kind of unprecedented “anachronism.” Because Jesus was said to be resurrected individually and in advance of the collective resurrection many ancient Jews expected in a future age, no one would have ever imagined Jesus’ resurrection on their own. As N.T. Wright, a former Anglican bishop, popular New Testament theologian, and one of the most noted apologists for the resurrection today, states (“The Surprise of Resurrection,” Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened, pp. 89f.):

“Nobody ever imagined that this final event would be anticipated in the case of one person in the present. No first-century Jew, prior to easter, expected it to be anything other than that large-scale, last-minute, all-people event” [1].

This point is emphasized heavily in N.T. Wright’s landmark tome on the resurrection of Jesus [2]. Wright takes this to be evidence the resurrection of Jesus really happened, for only perceptions of Jesus appearing alive again after his death and an empty tomb being discovered (i.e., what the gospel stories narrate) would have generated such a belief. The best explanation for these twin phenomena is that Jesus really was resurrected [3]. This is far from the only argument mustered by apologists, including Wright, to defend the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, but to Wright it appears to be especially important.

But do people come to believe only what they “expect” to believe, for instance? This is obviously not the case, or new religious beliefs (to say nothing of beliefs in general) would never occur to anyone. People come to hold all sorts of novel religious beliefs for a variety of reasons: theological debate, changing social conditions, individual creativity, rationalization, and so forth. It’s characteristic of new religious movements to believe things nobody believed before pretty much by definition. Although they draw from existing religious traditions, they are unconventional, and often deliberately so [4]. That typically doesn’t require that people have good reasons to hold their beliefs, or require us to posit, if a precise explanation for the logic of how those beliefs were formed is unavailable, that those beliefs are best explained as true. Although it conflicts with the overconfident rhetoric displayed throughout his volume, for a brief moment Wright (The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 693f.) seems to appreciate this point. Observe:

“But with history things are seldom that straightforward. Furthermore, when our primary datum is a widely held belief for which we are seeking the causes, matters are even more open-ended. People believe many strange things for many odd reasons.”

To be fair, Wright supplements his view of the “unprecedented” nature of the resurrection of Jesus with a number of common ancillary arguments. For example, messiahs who were killed were not, as a rule, subsequently considered to be messiahs, and their movements lost momentum and disappeared because they were considered failures [5]. We are also to take the very fact that there was a widespread, standard belief in a future collective resurrection as a positive reason for why no one would think to say an individual was resurrected. In other words, the more the association of the language of resurrection with the idea of a future collective resurrection was ingrained in the minds of ancient Jews, the less likely it is that it would occur to anyone to apply that language to Jesus, presumably because it might come to be seen as deviating from accepted beliefs [6]. Wright’s rhetoric is even stronger and more emphatic than that (The Resurrection of the Son of God, 447 & n.70, emphasis added):

“This shows how impossible it is to suggest … that because the hope of resurrection was ‘in the air’ at the time this somehow made it more likely that people would believe that Jesus had been raised. What the Christians believed was not what was ‘in the air’ at the time.”

These ancillary arguments attempt to provide more of a reason why the ancient Christians would avoid wanting to say Jesus had been resurrected, but the point is, “no one had thought of or expected this very precise thing before” isn’t really a sound argument for why no one would come to believe or “imagine” it on their own without being “forced,” as it were, by some in-your-face event corresponding to the belief itself.

It’s nevertheless difficult to see what massive discontinuity Wright sees between the idea of the resurrection of Jesus as an individual and the doctrine of a future collective resurrection. This is a culture where people believe in entities like messiahs and concepts like magical resurrections, so despite Wright’s insistence to the contrary, I don’t see why this should compel a historian towards his historical conclusions.

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Posted in Exegesis, Guest Blogs, Historical Jesus, History, Miracles, Resurrection | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments